As a professor, one of my major jobs is to choose or follow something called a research agenda. Once chosen, we devote lots of time learning about that particular area, becoming somewhat of an expert and parlaying the information back to larger audiences (in theory, although some of us, quite frankly, do not). I study people, students-athletes in particular. They are a fairly easy population of folks to study, since athletes make up a large portion of the student population on most campuses — specifically Division II and Division III schools. In fact, I would assume that many of my colleagues in the behavioral sciences, education and the like would have similar interest and focus. Au contraire, mon frère.
I am often asked, why study student-athletes and who really cares? My knee-jerk reaction is to play the academic dozen. After all, I grew up in Stop Six, Texas, and many of us could take on the winner of that television show, “Yo’ Momma.” Somehow, however, I have been able to contain myself. Instead, I offer my standard intellectual answer, if I must call it that, “Why do we care about how any student experiences college?” While I am quick to speak up to such nonsense, I often wonder why this question tends to arise when I teach my class focused on student athletes, and never seems to take place when I mention that I teach a course on student developmental theory. The focus of both courses is on the student! I would venture to say, I am a real scholar dependent upon the title of the course. When I mention the word athlete, I become a dumb jock professor. I become what Dr. James Satterfield and I termed “Athletisized” or legendary creations of the institution, complete with the suburban myths. For athletes, unlike other student groups who participate in outside activities, say, like a musician or an actor, these myths tend to besmirch their character. Like all myths, however, there is some truth, but there is also whole lot of untruth.
Myth one – They do not graduate
One of the most troubling myths is this notion that student-athletes do not graduate, and their graduation rates are just too low. OK, well, the graduation rates are low. However, let’s be clear; they are not the only folks who are not graduating. When we really tease through the statistics about graduation rates, we find out that on many campuses, student-athletes not only graduate in general, but they are more likely to do so at a higher rate than or at least at close to that of all students.
Before the tomatoes are thrown, let me explain. There are other factors, which quite frankly, are typically not considered. Traditionally, we do not consider who is compared to whom. For instance, the graduation rates tend to be reported as a single data point for all groups. Those who participate in revenue-generating sports, like basketball and football in most states, and those who do not are lumped together. Single participant sports (like golf or tennis) make a big difference when calculating the overall graduation rates (another story – and quite interesting). In addition, when reports do disaggregate the data by sports, they tend not to sort by race. Can you recall having seen a report that compares the graduation rates for Black males who do not participate in athletics to the graduation rates of Black males who play revenue-generating sports. If you did, you might be surprised. In other words, the statistics can tell a thicker story. In the case of Black males who do not participate in sports, the data tell us that unwelcoming campus environments have something to do with whether a student stays in school. We (yes, us folks in the ivory tower) also fail to mention that the campus climate tends to be warm and sunny over in the athletic department. This leads me to the question: just what are they doing in athletics that we need to replicate on the rest of college campuses?
Myth Two- they are not so bright: The dumb jock
Athletes are supposedly less intelligent than other students. We hear; “they are only here to play ball.” They are just dumb jocks. They do not study, and they have lower “test scores.” Sadly, some folks still believe that standardized scores are the ultimate academic predictor and crystal ball of knowledge.
Never mind that research supports the fact that there are not only 7 or 8, but multiple intelligences. There is something called Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence — or the ability to use one’s mental abilities to coordinate one’s own bodily movements. There is also significant research that suggest that athletes have fined-tuned spatial awareness. Their brains are better wired spatially than the average person — similar to that of mathematicians. Again, Satterfield and I have argued that not only does the research support an athletic intelligence, but we also argue that elite athletes clearly must possess some mental and physical calculator. Otherwise, as Dr. Michael E. Dyson has suggested, how would elite athletes be able to effectively create the illusion of defying the laws of gravity by hanging in air? Borrowing from Dyson, if one is mesmerized by the musical genius of a Itzhak Perlman, and Wynton Marsalis, they too should be equally mesmerized by Michael Jordan’s ability to appear to hang in the air and sip a cup tea.
Myth three – it’s just not in the odds
Typically we hear that athletes should be cautious about pursuing professional athletic careers. The likelihood to land a position in professional sports from Division I sports is about 1 percent. This figure is supposed to serve as a deterrent. However, I would have to say that I like those odds, especially if I were thinking about playing the lottery. I would suggest that we just need to find another statistic to report. Better yet, why not report the odds of most hard to secure jobs out there? For instance, post the number of Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies or the odds of anyone who has an interest in becoming the president, or the odds of becoming an astronaut or an actor. Could you imagine, posting the odds of the many seemingly impossible careers and feats out there? Should we tell folks to give up that idea of president — it’s just not in the odds. So you want to become a brain surgeon? Well, it’s not in the odds. We could kill all kinds of dreams in one fatal swoop. I must say, I am elated that we do not post those statistics, and I hope we never do. Lastly, I would hope that we never post the number of Black professors who teach at institutions like mine. That figure is about 1 percent — one in one hundred — about the same odds to make it to the NBA from Division I ball. Hey, perhaps that’s why my students often ask me whether I ever played ball — the odds seem to be about the same.
Dr. Robin L. Hughes teaches courses in Higher Education Student Affairs in the school of education at Indiana University, Indianapolis.